Monday, January 17, 2011

Episode 26: Saladin and Iryien Make Some Moves

A door opens in the side of the eel statue, two women emerge. One is an acolyte in light, flexible armor. One is Iryien. The new Iryien glances at the decapitated bodies on the floor, then gazes hard at Xoe before turning to address Iryien.

She hardly acknowledges Saladin at all.

"Playing rough again, Mother? I know you can hardly be held responsible for your actions nowadays, but Aefeul was a good priestess, and most dedicated to the Program. We do allow you your dalliances," she fixed Saladin with what would be considered a look, "but it is time to consecrate a new batch of your daughters. The delegation from Rachhakka Kuunka is here and would like you to join them for the ceremony. Let us go below and get you into something more... appropriate."

Iryien, Saladin then Xoe were ushered into the stairwell behind the Other Iryien by the acolyte, and they wound down a long spiral staircase that is only intermittently lit by the occasional torch.

When they reached the bottom, the stairs opened into a wide, well-lit hallway, decorated in gaudy tapestries, forking in two directions. The Other Iryien heads to the right, and as Saladin emerges from the stairwell, he notices that the acolyte, not Xoe, is directly behind him.

Iryien turned to the acolyte and said "We seem to be missing someone. I didn't see any doorways in the staircase." The acolyte smiles wordlessly as the Other iryien responds.

"Mother, you know untrained females aren't allowed on Earth Level. The fact that she even attempted to come with us shows that some retraining is needed. Don't worry, she's being attended to. Now if you'll step into here," her hand passed over a section of wall and a hidden door clicked open in the stone, "you'll find your vestments have been laid out for you. I must see to the delegation before the ceremony. Please make your way to their box as soon as you're dressed. I'll make sure they find a larger chair for your..." she paused to eye Saladin up and down, not without a little disdain. "...friend."

She led them into a long room, heavy with perfumes and tapestries. One other door leads from the room, which seems to be a vestry of sorts. A stunning chocolate velvet is laid out on an ornamental table, presumably for Iryien as it would amount to little more than a loincloth on Saladin. The Other Iryien turned and left.

Iryien let out a strained breath and crossed over to the velvet garments.

"We may as well play this out for as long as we can. There is no telling what sort of trouble will find us once they discover I am not who they believe me to be." She ran her hands over the velvet. "Turn around, Saladin. I am going to change."

Iryien lifted the outfit and looked around the room.

"While you're waiting, why don't you make yourself useful and look around? Just...
do be cautious when opening doors."

Saladin turned to the rest of the room. Priestly ornaments filled the room, again with a distinctly Earthen theme. Gold, amber, jasper accents adorned censers, plates, little tabletop altars. A large, circular mosaic depicting certain Elemental rituals is inlaid into the far wall, with the quarter circle representing Earth on top.

Saladin moved to the other door in the room and listened quietly. He heard a murmered conversation between two women and silently cracked the door...

"How many are going down this time?"
"Almost thirty."
"That many? That's twice as many as last month!"
"Yes, Master Lee has ordered that we increase production. It is also why the Reptoids are here. They want to personally see the first of the ones Who Will Go Outside. So please try not to tread on my robes during the Chant to the Waters this time..."

As the two voices descend onto girlish giggling, Iryien whispered to Saladin that she was ready.

Flowing robes with built-in headpiece, the velvet robes seem slightly big for Iryien's frame, a detail she does not miss. Not
too big, just a little more roomy here and there. If this was made for me, Iryien thought, it's a me who's lost her shape...

Remembering that they were told to make thier way to the delgates' box, Saladin realized that they now had the authority to roam unmolested for a short time now. Opening the door for his 'Reverend Mother', he bowed (a little sarcastically, she thinks) and beckoned her into the hall.

As they opened the door, a low murmur greeted them. They seemed to be in a tunnel underneath a gathering place, like a auditorium. Two young acolytes are at the end of the 20-foot passage, discussing something quietly when they entered. Upon seeing Iryien, they snapped to attention and stepped aside, each one flanking a doorway.

As they passed and headed up the stairway inside the door, they could hear chortling and guffawing from the space above. Heading up and around, they entered what looked like a theater box, and sitting there in glittering robes of green and gold were four reptilian humanoids. Four pairs of large, glassy eyes turned their way when they entered, and all four rise to their feet before bowing low. One of them, the shortest, approached Iryien with its hands extended.

"Ah, Reverend Mother, it iss ssso good of you to grant usss the pleasssure of your company."

The three others nod in agreement before giving way to reveal two chairs in the center of the box, obviously meant for Saladin and Iryien. One of them is considerably larger than the other.

"And ssso good of you," chimed in another, possibly female, lizardperson, "to take in an Athasian refugee as a mate. Your Excellency no doubt wantsss to sssave sssome of that sssturdy Mulish ssstock from the genocccide currently taking placcce on Athas. What a noble gesssture! Jussst make sssure the Dragon Queen doesssn't find out!" All four reptoids broke out into peals of hissy laughter. It was obvious from the scents that assailed their nostrils that the four of them had been drinking.

A bright, brassy horn interrupted the glee session, and the reptoids quickly recovered to look ahead out of the balcony window onto the scene below.

This great open area is obviously the one in which the principle of Earth is served. The walls are rough-hewn sandstone, but the entire floor is dark brown earth. Some sort of phosphorescent lichen provides a dim illumination throughout the vast area. It grows on walls and ceiling, supports and arches. Cressets and wall sconces indicate that, during ceremonies, other light sources are used. In the center of the room, occupying a 20' square area, is a pyramid of hardpacked dirt; the sides rise about six feet, and the top is flat, forming an area about six feet square. Stone steps are set in the
four faces of the pyramid. Atop it is a stone altar, each of its four faces bearing a inlaid golden triangle.

Three women, one of them the Other Iryien, stalked ritualistically out to the pyramid, up the steps and to the altar as brassy music played. Soon after, a line of young, sylphlike acolytes wearing gauzy chocolate-colored gowns proceeded out from doors beneath them. They proceeded to the beat of the music, first up the left-hand stairway, then to the altar where the Other Iryien would make a mark on their forehead, drawing it with her finger after dipping it into a bowl being held by her two attendants. As she marked the girls, she chanted over and over again:

From the Earth our mission goes
Down through Waters deep below
Tempered by a cleansing Fire
Air doth scatter our Desires

After being marked, the girls headed down the steps to the right before disappearing through a door directly beneath their box. 33 in all. After the last one disappeared, ten more women appeared from below Iryien and march up the center stairway of the pyramid. They flanked the Other Iryien on each side, all obviously pregnant. "Iryien" turned and kissed each one on the forehead before turning to Iryien's box and shouting:

Mother! I, your daughter give these your daughters
to the ones who will take them to the Birthing Place!
May they travel safe and bear their burdens well!
May they return in triumph with more Glory for you!
Let the Cycle of Peace continue again in your name, amen.

As the girls turned and filed down the far side of the pyramid, a set of bronze doors in the back opens up and the girls all head through.

"That'sss our cue," says the short reptoid, as they all rise. "Do come and sssee usss off, Reverend Mother. We do have a sssurprise for you."

After watching the whole ritual with a thinly veiled look of alarm, Iryien turned to the reptilian creatures and says, with a smile, "We will follow you in a moment."

Once they left, she turned to Saladin with a 'what in the world have we walked into' look on her face.

They then followed the reptoids through the large space where the ritual occurred. Dozens of acolytes were hanging about, sweeping, cleaning, refilling lamps and bowls. Looks like there's an evening show.

At the big doors in the back, one of the reptoids turns and says, "Reverend Mother! Come sssee!"

They walked up to the four reptoids and as they step aside they saw a space - bigger than the auditorium behind them. No ceiling could be seen, but in the middle of the vast floor, lit by flickering spotlight, is a wasp.

A giant wasp.

The pregnant acolytes are heading towards it and... start to enter?

"Behold, the "Reverend Motherssship!"

The four beam at the wasp as they looked again, seeing the last of the acolytes head up a ramp into the belly of the...

Ship.


A Spelljammer.


"Fassstessst in the fleet, ssshe isss. After we take thisss crop to birth in orbit around the sun, we'll ssstop by our homeworld to pick up more prophylacteriesss before bringing them here. Really a lovely sssystem you've devisssed..."

The thoughts in your head start to wheel and spin, so much so that you barely notice the disturbance back in the ritual chamber...

Friday, January 14, 2011

Episode 26: The World According To Xeno

Xeno didn’t get Ben. One minute he’s a fancyrobes ladies’ man, the next; he’s got himself involved in the action. Xeno’s action.

Admittedly, the action hadn’t been all he’d hoped. Gah, this time crap was horrible: No time to get anything going, no time for a gnome to find his feet and really get down to the business of acquiring interesting trinkets, making savvy real-estate investments and hurting people who annoy or inconvenience him. Instead, he’d been dropped into one mess after another, losing the cube, missing a prime opportunity to blow Fundus to smithereens and all the time in the back of his head, increasing concern about Object and the Cargo.



Now Ben had yanked him into a gray netherland, with some sort of bullshit about the shoes of time being on the wrong feet. And of course, Xeno was going to have to be the lace gnome. “Blah blah blah…easy way or hard way,” someone said. It was a little hard to concentrate with the world going all gray and funny around the edges like that—a new healer was No. 1 with a bolt, as far as Xeno was concerned, although he’d had some ideas about trapping a quality healing spell in a disposable object, much like an explosive rune; for some reason, his thoughts had uncharacteristically been turning to healing quite a bit lately—and there was a sort of ringing in his ears, not to mention the common, persistent scent of burning hair, but he picked up enough to say “Easy way!” Not that it mattered. Apparently, they were heading toward the orb that contained that freaking temple in a time-like bubble, anyway. “Toward the temple? Are you insane?” Xeno asked. “Don’t worry,” said Ben. “We’re not actually going in, we’re just taking a look.”



He almost sounded like he actually believed that, thought Xeno. He looked around; amazingly, even Xoe was heading that way. Really? The rest of these stiffs I can buy, but she’s not…she is! I forget—she has this irrational liking for Ben. I wonder if he digs the short chicks…That line of thought was interrupted, however, as what had just a moment ago seemed like an innocuous little marrowbonejellybean of doom suddenly swelled into something enormous and foul. By Nebelun’s Bag, he thought. That can’t be good! And that stupid ringing in my ears isn’t going away.

“Does anyone else hear that?” he asked. Ben whirled around. “What do you hear?” he asked. “There’s a new kind of ringing noise,” said Xeno. “Kind of like when you get a cauldron stuck on your head? And then some idiot, who shall remain nameless, Saladin, gets the bright idea to bang on it with a mallet? Like that.” As he spoke, he noticed Ben’s eyes growing even wider than usual, and he seemed to be getting…smaller. No, that wasn’t right—he was running away. ‘First smart thing he’s done in a while, thought Xeno. I can run, and “from” is good. “To” usually takes care of itself.

“Timestorm!” cried Ben, as a gray sheet materialized in the distance, and began sweeping closer. “Run for it!” The looming side of the Temple’s enclosure was soon paralleled by a crag of sorts, and as they fled into the narrow passage, the gray sleet resolved itself into a downpour of…numerals? That can’t be right, thought Xeno.Still, better out than in. Then, pelting along the canyon, he heard Xoe yell a warning: “Hit the deck, Ben!” Ben obliged, but was struck by what Xeno recognized as a cogwheel. Hey, I could use one of those, he thought, but was disappointed to see it vanish, as Ben, motionless, was enveloped by a golden glow. Whirling around, Xeno was confounded by the sight of what appeared to be a clockwork golem atop the crag, seemingly preparing to deliver another gear from a process developing in its arm. Now that’s what I’m talking about! he thought. I have GOTS to get me one of those. Oh well; now that he’d seen it, he was sure he could put some drawings together later. In the meantime, it was as usual up to Xeno to save the day. And if I know how to do anything, it’s how to fuck up machinery.

Dropping ever so slightly to one knee, he invoked an ioun stone, thinking, Now would not be a good time for butterflies. It wasn’t.

“Ha! Taste the freezing wrath of Xeno!” he shouted, as a terrible cone of energy streamed out from his extended hand. Immediately, the spinning mechanisms of the weird figure started creaking and grinding slowly, as its movements became jerky and uncertain. Slowly, it began to slide toward the edge of the now-slick surface toward the edge of the crag. Xeno was still trying to figure out how to ascend to deliver the coup de grace when a large shape surged into the air next to him. “Super Grow Power!” It was Takemiya, and for once he wasn’t in the mood for polite discussion. With one mighty jerk, he grabbed the sliding being and dashed him toward…Xeno?

Sure. You couldn’t punch him? Swat him like a bug? Just freaking grab him? All you had to do was finish him off but noooo, you had to throw him into the middle of…” Xeno didn’t get to finish the thought. The being exploded into a million fragments on contact with the ground, one of those turning itself into a gnome-seeking missile. Huh, that’s about a No. 4 eccent... URK!

Xeno’s fading vision showed the world turning sideways, as another flying piece of the mechanism tore itself into the side of the Temple enclosure like an attack sausage. He was immediately sucked through. “I TOLD you idiots this would happen!” he screamed as the world went black. “Why does no one ever listen to meeeee…..?”

---------

Waking up was not much more fun than blacking out. While Xeno didn’t exactly know where he was, soup to nuts it was that fucking temple again. Xoe and Iryien were next to him, but the rest of the vast amphitheatre in which he found himself seemed to be filled with a large variety of familiar and half familiar figures, all in some stage of fight or flight. Sounds good to me, he thought. And as after today he was no longer alright for fighting, time to make with the skedaddling. To the left—three nubile, but clearly combative advancing figures. Behind…ah. Another Iryien and a dragon. Ooookay then. Right side it is.

Bounding gazelle-like through the heaving sea of bodies, Xeno was at the open passage before his shadow knew he was gone. Turning the corner, he heard a strange ripping sound, and glanced over his shoulder to see what appeared to be himself, Xoe and another figure emerging from the wall. Yeah…no, he thought, and accelerated down the hall. The “to” will take care of itself.

---------

As the veil parted, Xeno realized that they could finally put this evil to rest. The False Ones—there they were arrayed before him, like so many canap├ęs. The only question: Which one to eat first? Well, family first, mother always said. With one bound, he was at the False Xoe’s throat. “I am totally going to enjoy this, sis,” he snarled, fangs flashing toward her dainty little carotid artery. Is that right? he wondered, as the rich, unlife-giving fluid poured into him. I could never keep them straight. Let’s see…it’s “cut the carotid, jack the jugular,” right? But what does that mean?

---------

Waking up was not much more fun than blacking out. There was a familiar sense of his head banging against a solid object, and then he was on his feet. This time, the world wasn’t gray—it was distinctly red. And while Xeno didn’t exactly know where he was, soup to nuts it was that fucking temple again. There was giant Takemiya, there was Xoe…bleeding from a cut on her forehead? There was Kobayashi standing next to him, there was…also Takemiya?

Oh, hells no.

Sometimes, a gnome has to take a stand, such as it is. For too long, Xeno had been the universe’s punching bag. It was clear that the Biggies’ gods didn’t give a crap about anyone under four feet tall. He could live with obscurity; that was fine, that suited his very particular needs well, in fact. But when someone else’s deities appeared to take an active, malevolent interest in him, when the Multiverse went out of its way to make life unpleasant? Well, it was time to learn that Xeno wasn’t from around these parts.

The red closed in.

It was no longer Kobayashi standing next to him—that was freaking Pomegranate Shen. “Why can’t you people stay dead when I kill you?” Xeno shrieked, suddenly appearing level with and closing fast on Kobayshi’s forehead. And that giant, pasty thing over there? That was his old Master. “Unnatural? Unnatural? You wouldn’t even be alive now if it wasn’t for my unnatural ways!” So what if he was forty feet tall? That just leaves that much more forehead exposed, and apparently, makes a much more satisfying crunch when it falls.

But that, that was definitely Takemiya. “You’ve got this one coming!” screamed the enraged gnome, covering the distance before the monk had a chance to react. “All you had to was finish it off!”

Looking around wildly at the head of a trail of dazed and bleeding bodies, Xeno didn’t see anyone else he recognized, but really, at this point one erect body was as good as any other. And there were three, three he didn’t know, which meant they probably came with the temple, which meant they had to go downtown.

Two did, quickly, but the third took advantage of her comrade’s fall to grab Xeno in a leglock about the neck. In other circumstances, he might well have come up with a more entertaining means of egress—or not—but not today. Unluckily for the acolyte, Xeno’s arms were on the same side of her legs as the rest of his body and thus, short swords. The first one she stopped, but the second hit something. Xeno didn’t stop to wonder what and as soon as her grip loosened, he was past her heading into the hall and sweet, sweet freedom.

SNAP. The lights went out, and came back on almost instantaneously. What fresh new horror is this, Xeno wondered, as a fresh new horror stepped out in front of him, a clearly undead, partially eviscerated female figure lurching toward him with GBH on it’s mind. It’s not a good day to die, but what are you gonna do? he thought, and prepared to send a storm of acid arrows on their dread way.

SNAP. The lights went out. Barely checking his wand in mid-deployment, Xeno then found himself side by side with his compatriots—all of them, including a disheveled Longbottom, facing a complimentary row of large, colorfully ornamented skulls. “Why have you come to our temple?” one intoned.

“We didn’t exactly come,” Xeno said. “It was more of a kidnapping, style of thing. Of us, I mean. We were trying to locate one of our companions, who I see we’ve now found, so if it’s all the same with you, we’ll be on our way now.”

“There will be a testing, first,” stated another skull. Are you kidding me? thought Xeno. I’m feeling pretty damn tested already, as he surreptitiously began preparing his favorite prying-the-eyeballs-from-skulls dagger.

“Do you know where you are?” asked a skull?

“I don’t know, and I don’t particularly care,” Xeno answered. I think I can make it in one jump. If Saladin follows my lead—and knowing Saladin, he will—he can take those two while I gouge the whateverthehellstheyare from the eye sockets of mine, and that just leaves one for Xoe and the rest to handle.

SNAP. The lights went out. Yet again.

Next time, thought Xeno, I’m going with Geetsie.

Episode 26: The World According To Xoe

"Hit the deck, Ben!"

"Right!"

Ben dropped to the ground ahead of me...just in time for one of the huge gears thrown by the automaton-clocky-thingie to thud directly into his back. Crap. The only person who had any idea of what was going on around here, and he was out like a light. And glowing strangely in the silvery-grey mists that wrapped around us.

I skipped up to his side. Pulse steady, okay, that's a start.

"Hey, Kobayashi! Can you help me out with some healing here?"

BBBBBZZZTFoooooorm.

BBBBBZZZTfooorm? Oh no. Xeno.

I whipped around to see the clock-thingie dangling by one hand from the tree perched on a ledge above us. Xeno was screaming incoherently, which usually meant that he'd just shot something. Yep, he had the wand pack out and was wiggling his fingers with glee. Didn't need to see the frost on the gear-based behemoth to know he'd shot it with something. Ice, instead of fire, thankfully. Last thing we needed was to torch an imaginary interstitial plane while our guide was unconscious.

Takemiya swelled to gigantic proportions - damnit, would that man PLEASE stop wearing such loose pants if he's going to do that? A gnome's-eye view up his trouser cuffs is NOT pleasant - and brushed the clockwork creature off its branch...causing it to crash to earth just ahead of Xeno and Longbottom. A tiny cog bounced off it, whacked Xeno straight in the forehead, and hurtled into the dome that Ben had said represented the temple.

It cracked.

Xeno folded double, tongue lolling out (he has such a tendency to drool when he's unconscious, ugh) and was sucked into the gap. Longbottom and Takemiya followed...

I spun around, yelling at Kobayashi to hurry up and heal Ben, and jammed one of my cheap daggers into the ground, hanging on for dear life as the crack opened wider, sucking me towards it. Crap crap crap craaaaaaaaap...
_______________________________________________________________________

What the hell? What was this, some sort of stadium? An arena? Shit, where would the lions come in? Probably straight ahead. Maybe behind. Thankfully, Giant Takemiya was behind me, so they'd get to chew on his ass first.

Tak was distracted, his shiny metal head lifted off his body and spinning around gently in the air above the earthen pyramid we'd somehow landed on. He muttered something about "Saladin and Iriyen are here" and then resumed floating.

Okay then.

Xeno - definitely unconscious - Longbottom, and Kobayashi were heaped up to the side of the pyramid. No sign of Ben. Not good. I whipped out a pair of daggers and peeked around Tak to see if Iriyen and Saladin were there, like he suggested.

And wound up staring at myself. Crap crap craaaaaaap.
_______________________________________________________________________

What the hell? What was this, some sort of stadium? An arena? Shit, where would the lions come in? Probably straight ahead. Maybe behind.

Maybe from the GIANT FREAKING METAL-HEADED TAKEYMIYA sitting on the earthen pyramid in front of me.

I looked around. Xeno was still with me, and...Iryien?

"Hey, what are you doing here? We were looking for you!"

"I..."

Suddenly, she spun around and walked down a passage behind me, where I could just make out Saladin and another figure. She reached out towards the other, shadowy figure, and Saladin grabbed her.

"No! You can't touch her!"

I looked closer, peering through the gloom with my infravision. The shadowy figure resolved into...another Iryien. Huh. Well, that could be interesting. One looked right - she was wearing the armour we'd given her as part of her payment - and the other looked...pretty much the same, sans armour. They were staring in fascination at each other, reaching out to touch...

Touch. Huh. Well, we knew now that we could have doppelgangers in the same place with no problem, but touching...that could be interesting. I took a quick look around the arena and noticed myself, daggers in hand, peering out from behind the giant metal-headed Takemiya in the center.

"Xoe, get down!" I yelled. "Just in case!"
_______________________________________________________________________

I ducked just in time to feel something whistle over my head. I risked a glance over my shoulder and saw Saladin, looking oddly green, recover from the backswing of his death-scythe. Wait, now Saladin was trying to kill me? He finally snapped. All that baby-killing and soul enemas and the whole "absorbing death" thing finally pushed the druid over the edge. Great. We made this guy our leader why? We'd probably have better long-term survival chances listening to XENO, for heaven's sake. At least Xeno knew when to scamper.

"I really don't want to kill you, damnit," I muttered, flinging a knife half-heartedly at Saladin. He ducked. Oh well.

Takemiya, by his side, launched himself at me, kicking faster than my eyes could follow. Takemiya? What? With a human head again? And...metal legs? Oh shit.

I sprang out of the crouch I'd dropped into when the other me yelled, whirled around, and stabbed Leggy Tak in the back. Ow, shit, the metal extended further up than I'd expected, and the feedback resonated up the dagger into my arm. I jumped back and hid behind Giant Tak as he slowly tumbled backwards onto the pyramid platform. Shit, someone hit him, too...
_______________________________________________________________________

Blood. Blood blood blood blood vodka blood...

"EEEEEARGH!"

Damnit, the fake monk's thigh was chewy. And the fake Xeno's head was really damn hard.

-NOT THE END YET-

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Episode 25, Part 2: Let's Get The Band Back Together...

Takemiya slid invisibly into the room as the jailer shut the door. He watched silently as the armored man hobbled around what appeared to be a bunkroom, arming himself with a couple short swords. Takemiya waited for an opening and pounced...

The old man hit the wall like a sackful of candelabras.

Takemiya flipped over the crumpled sexegenarian and looked for something to tie him up with. A basket of what appeared to be old socks waiting to be laundered would have to do, though he did feel a twinge of guilt as he placed one in his mouth as a gag.

He had just finished when a secret panel opened up in the wall behind him. An armed guard wearing brown armor with gold triangles entered the room and blinked twice upon discovering the sock-bound jailer.

Takemiya didn't let him blink a third time.

Helmet hit helmet, a little too hard, perhaps, but when you take a guard job in an evil underground temple, you have to know what you're getting into. As Takemiya pulled the guard's lifeless body into a corner, he noticed that he could now see his hands... He was visible.

Quickly, he returned to Xoe's cell and revived her. She had no memory of how she got there or what happened to her after meeting the other Iryien by the eel statue in the temple. Takemiya couldn't be much more helpful on their current location - just that he'd been sent down, down, down below the temple by Xeno's eye-gouging.

"Sound's about right," chuckled Xoe.

The two of them returned to the jailer's quarters to look for Xoe's possessions. She felt naked without her assortment of knives, and was hesitant to leave them behind. A few minutes of cabinet-raiding soon found every sharp, pointy piece of metal in her arsenal back in its proper place, and she was ready for action.

In the hallway outside, she got some.

They hadn't traveled thirty feet when they had reached an intersection with a larger hallway. This one was brightly lit, flagged with swirling sandstone and had a floor inlaid with triangular yellow tiles. Xoe halted Takemiya and kneeled to investigate, but as she did so, a shimmering circle of blue appeared in the wall opposite. Xoe drew her knives and prepared to pounce, when out of the darkness in the center of the circle appeared the face of Ben Firenze.

"Ah, there you are. Quit standing there like you're on the cover of Dragon Magazine. We have work to do."
_____________________________________________________

"She'll kill me if I don't deliver these!!! I don't know what the hell they are but I don't want these things!!!"

The two guards looked down over their crossbows at the frantic gnome. While not exactly graduates of the Gary Gygax School for Intelligent Stockade Guardsman, they knew that two guards carrying crossbows had nothing to fear from a gnome armed only with a couple of sausages. And, come to think of it, they were feeling a bit peckish, so...

The guards descended the wooden ladder and one of them put his hand to the heavy bolt that held the thick wooden doors shut. But before he could lift it, two holes were blown through the door and each guard felt a painful shock as the attack sausages penetrated their armor and started to chomp their way through organ and bone. The grisly sound of frenzied feeding was the last thing either man heard.

Kobayashi carefully reached his arm through one of the two holes in the wood and undid the bolt. Cautiously pushing the gate open, he peered inside.

Two bodies lay on the ground, and only the faint suspicion of what had happened allowed Kobayashi to detect some slight movement under the guards' armor. He deftly slipped inside the gate and motioned for Xeno to do the same. They looked up and saw a large longhouse at the center of the wooden buildings that made up Plank Town. Kobayashi suggested approaching by an indirect route.

From behind some stables, the two could now see Count Fundus, the ice elf and two orcs standing on the threshold of the longhouse. The orcs were carrying a large chest, and now placed it at Fundus' feet. The Count turned and spoke to the shadows, and they moved...

A figure, black and two dimensional, emerged from the shadows. Not as tall as Fundus, it appeared to be human, but no features were visible. It spoke to the elf, and she replied with a distinct note of unease in her voice. She gestured to the chest, and an orc opened it up. A golden glow rose up from the interior of the chest and illuminated the faced of all but the shadow man. Fundus looked pleased.

"Alright," Xeno hissed. "I've seen enough." He strode forward and raised the Finger of Doom. With a word he sent a glittering blue spark whizzing through the night towards the group. Startled, the group was quick enough to make their way towards the entryway of the longhouse before impact. They were scrambling to safety when...

Somewhere in the Multiverse, the Gods rolled their dice...

The fireball never materialized, but the shadow man momentarily froze. As the others tumbled into the longhouse, the dark silhouette moved as if in molasses towards the door.

"Damn you, stupid die roll!" yelled Xeno to the Gods. He forgot that sometimes, the Gods listen. He pointed his Finger again and summoned another fireball and...

Scarlet, orange and crimson flames engulfed him as he cursed. Cursed the Gods, cursed his luck, cursed his constant miscalculation of cubic footage. His hair sizzled. His robes charred. He felt himself being lifted and carried away from the smoke as shouts and screams could now be heard arriving on the scene. He felt a cool draught up his robes as he looked into Kobayashi's eyes.

"Someday, you get everyone killed!"

Kobayashi set him down a little rougher than Xeno would have liked. Xeno was seeing stars and was sure that his lungs had been seared. He could only barely hear Kobayashi's inane muttering as things started to swirl before Xeno's eyes.

Was he dying?

He didn't feel great, and now he was seeing a swirling portal - probably THE portal into the gnomish version of the afterlife - where you never got hurt by your own explosions. He was quite looking forward to death now; maybe Pomegranate would stop haunting him and maybe, just maybe he'd get a chance to rest and work on some new gadgets...

But hold on a second - this wasn't the gnomish afterlife - this was Ben Firenze looking out at him through a hole in the side of a building. But right now he didn't mind the disappointment. Ben may be a haughty SOB, but at least he had access to quality medicine.

"Do I smell chicken wings or have you been playing with your fireballs again?"

Too sore to come up with a snappy comeback, Xeno allowed himself to be helped by Kobayashi through the shimmering portal into the dark and quiet realm of the Temporal Prime.